I’m not hearing this right. The recruiter must’ve made a mistake. He didn’t just say –
‘I said, your application has been successful. Lady Kathanhiel, slayer of the Elisaad Dragon, has chosen you as her esquire.’
Uh huh. Alright. Sure. Decidedly.
For every second my mouth hangs open, the recruiter’s wispy eyebrows soar further into his receding hairline.
Respond, dumbass. Grin. Emit joy and contentment.
‘I uh…that’s…I don’t…what do you…’
This can’t be happening.
For the position of esquire to the greatest living hero in the Realms, they’re going to pick the guy with the frying-pan face who can’t swing a sword, can’t shoot a bow, can’t take punches, can’t run a mile without suffocating, can’t hold conversations for longer than a minute, can’t stop his brain from spewing nervous monologue…
This can’t be happening.
In an attempt to act natural I look around the room, swivelling my head like a startled rooster. Seated on either side of me are the two other finalists for the position, both fine and upstanding youths under twenty-five. Here they are – hold your applause.
To my left sits the knight with the long and storied name no one remembers. Handsome fellow, if not for the poison in his eyes; even now his frown is deepening into a fleshy gulch filled with old sweat. His gauntleted hands look like they’re trying to snap an invisible neck.
To my right sits Haylis, distant cousin of Lady Kathanhiel, who has set up a deep-boring operation in her right nostril. She has asked me on two separate occasions if I’ve ever wondered where the endless supply of substances in one’s nose comes from. Sincere and non-condescending answers were given, but it would seem that nothing could quench her wanton desire for inner exploration.
Put me, the only applicant to fail more than half the tests, in the middle, and you have the three finalists – the most talented youths in the Realms.
This can’t be happening.
The recruiter leans forward, catching my eyes. ‘Kastor? You’re accepting aren’t you?’
‘The wha – the wha….?
‘Esquire to Kathanhiel. Do you accept?’
Well of course I accept, stop asking stupid questions. I will make an excellent esquire to Kathanhiel, hero of the Realms and slayer of the Elisaad Dragon. Did someone say three hundred crowns a month with a six-month advance?
‘Yes…yes I do. Thank you. Thank you. It’s an honour to….thank you.’
The recruiter pulls out a thick scroll. ‘To confirm your contract, please sign here, here, put initials here, here, and thumbprint beneath the red seal.’
I flip through it. There are enough words on here to fill out the Maker’s scripture. Don’t need the details – I know what I’m getting myself into…right?
Five minutes of rigorous pen-scratching later, I hand the completed contract back to recruiter. He nods. ‘Seems to be in order. Now, Miss Haylis, if you would also –’
‘I’m not signing nothing,’ she says. ‘Aunt Kath said I don’t have to.’
I speak up, ‘so…excuse me, sorry but…she’s also…’
‘Miss Haylis partook in the application process at the behest of Lady Kathanhiel,’ the recruiter says. ‘She has been accepted regardless of her results, which are, incidentally, quite impressive.’
‘Aunt Kath invited me to be her esquire,’ Haylis says. ‘Thought you were special did you?’
She crosses her arms and looks the other way, her hair spinning out in cute curls. When swooning at an attractive woman, one must not overlook the details, such as her nose-delved finger rubbing on her sleeve and leaving a shiny streak.
The recruiter persists. ‘Your contract must be signed, or the treasury won’t authorise your salary.’
She doesn’t even look around. ‘Nope, not signing. You can’t make me.’
At that moment the knight veritably explodes. ‘You would give them the contract?! These idiots?! I should be Kathanhiel’s esquire, not this -’ gesturing at me now, ‘- insolent trash you dug up from the streets! And her! Her! If you think that little bitch can do what I can do then you’re dumber than these idiots put together. It should’ve been me! Me!’
For one who has bragged about his chivalric family tree for thirty-odd days, that outburst is pretty un-knightly.
I speak up because I’m an idiot. ‘Sir, that’s unfair. We both worked as hard as you did for the position.’
He stares at me like an angry goldfish, all pop-eyed and flushed red. ‘Shut your mouth. You will speak when spoken to.’
Haylis is still looking the other way with her arms crossed. What a fine strategy: you call me names? I turn around and ignore you and hope you go away.
The recruiter rubs the side of his face with one tired hand and rings a bell with the other. Two burly guardsmen enter. ‘Escort Sir…whatever his name is, out of my sight. Make sure he does not return.’
The room overflows with curses, thumping fists, banging boots, sputtering spit, and colourful expletives that need not be elaborated on. Quiet awkwardness returns ten seconds later.
Just the three of us in the room now.
The recruiter tries again. ‘Miss Haylis, if you would be so kind…’
‘I told you I won’t sign nothing.’
‘You heard the lady. She won’t sign nothing,’ I speak up with the expert timing of a great comedian.
Now she spins around to look at me, her eyes narrowed as if examining insolent trash someone dug up from the streets.
The recruiter sighs, a picture of weary resignation. ‘If you insist. Come with me now Kastor. You will be presented to Lady Kathanhiel. She will see you in due time, Miss Haylis, so please remain here and…be as you are.’
My hands are shaking. They’re putting on a dance routine, the kind that belly dancers from the south do in those short skirts, except instead of exciting and erotic they’re just plain pathetic.
Repeatedly muttering the phrase ‘esquire to Kathanhiel, hero of the Realms, slayer of the Elisaad Dragon’ under one’s breath doesn’t seem to calm the nerves.
A few doors open, which lead to more corridors, which lead to more doors that lead to more corridors. We’re inside the King’s winter palace after all, the kind of property lease only a dragon slayer could acquire.
It’s a shame that when the King returns in three months the bathing suite won’t be there to greet His Majesty. One of the applicants ripped off the porcelain tap when he tried to turn it on, and didn’t tell anybody about it until the next day when all the servants came fleeing from their flooded quarters.
It’s being taken care of, thankfully. Craftsmen have been called, replicas made, the tap fixed. Not the nasty stains in the lower corridors and the servant quarters though. That’ll take months. One peek inside his maid’s room is all it will take for the King to realise that something’s amiss…not that he would ever peek inside his maid’s room. Or would he?
You’re thinking about useless stuff again. Stop it.
We arrive at a final set of doors. The recruiter opens them.
Or at least the closest thing to it I’ve ever seen.
Shining under the autumn sun is a half-garden half-zoo. None of the applicants have ever been this part of the palace; they would’ve said something about the white peacocks roaming amongst birds of paradise, the spider monkeys swinging from one side of the vine-encrusted pergola to the other, the pair of caracals roaming underneath the arches and eyeing the monkeys hungrily…or at least mention the bronze-scaled dragonling dozing inside the gilded cage.
This pony-sized creature has a crocodile head, a thin, smooth-looking neck, a ridged spine that merges into its barbed tail, and translucent wings like those of an insect stretching behind its forelegs. It’s kind of cute actually, yawning and baring its teeth like a sleepy cat, shooing away a curious spider monkey with a tail swish.
The garden path leads around the cage, up a sizable hill, and ends in a circular gazebo that overlooks the vast prairies of the kingdom’s heartland and the entirety of the winter palace.
What a view: an ocean of gold and green warmed by the distant embrace of sun-touched mountains, and at the fore, gleaming white spires around which birds of every colour and size gather to sing their songs.
I see none of it.
I see none of it because Kathanhiel is sitting right there, looking at me.
Looking at me.
My life, until this moment, hasn't been worth living: sitting at the same grimy dinner table every day, chewing stale bread, listening to the same folks nagging the same nags about the neighbours, talking the same talk about when Kastor is going to get a real job, why isn’t he out there looking for a wife when he’s twenty-two and not touched a woman all his life...so on and so forth. Every day the same.
In that dreary repetition, reality becomes very well defined.
Coming back home after a long day of being treated like a shovel with a mouth, sitting down at the table, hearing the talk, then immediately going to bed because there’s nothing worth being awake for – that is real.
The tales of Kathanhiel – how she held a knife to the King’s throat until he agreed to lend her three thousand troops to march on the lair of Elisaad; how the magic sword Kaishen came to her from the sky in a flash of lightning; how she slew the mad dragon by stabbing Kaishen through the nape of its neck – they are not real.
In that moment between waking and sleep, when I’m lying there with eyes closed trying to find a reason to wake up tomorrow, I think about the unreal. As one who spends every meagre crown he earns inside the tavern – not for drinks but the tales – I have thought about Kathanhiel more than anything or anyone else.
I thought about her because she doesn’t really exist.
No. This can’t be real. This opulent gazebo, with its golden columns and mosaic ceiling, can’t be real. The woman sitting before me with the perfect smile can’t be real.
She’s wearing a white skirt and a sleeveless doublet that bares proudly her scar-riddled arms. Around her neck is a tooth pendant, the incisor of a great dragon. Her eyes are an unknowable grey; the faded scar over her right eyelid makes no attempt to hide underneath her cropped golden hair.
‘I appreciate the compliment,’ she says.
In the name of the Maker, did I just say something?
Indecipherable sputters of a choking chimney spew from my lips.
She gestures to the seat opposite. ‘Kastor, I look forward to working with you.’
I pinch myself on the thigh, then the face. Both hurt as they should. Not good. Not good at all. Why did I just pinch myself?
‘Kastor is rather prone to bouts of nervousness,’ the recruiter says helpfully, ‘so please forgive him if he displays….unorthodox enthusiasm.’
‘You’re Kathanhiel,’ I speak politely with ne’er a stutter, ‘and I’m Kastor.’
Why is she smiling? What did I say?!